smart meter

Call for ban on court-imposed pre-payment energy meters

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Campaigners have said the government should ban the forceful imposition of Pre-Payment Meters (PPMs) over concerns that energy firms are effectively using them to disconnect vulnerable customers, which is against their licence conditions.

While energy firms are obliged to protect people from formal disconnection over the winter, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition (EFPC) has found evidence that customers in debt who are forced onto a PPM by their supplier will often “self-disconnect” and stop using energy.

Reports have established that energy suppliers are now using PPMs more often as a method of revenue protection.

Court warrants are increasingly being used to get magistrates courts to “rubber stamp” warrants to install meters, EFPC said. Freedom of information requests revealed 187,000 such applications were made in the first six months of 2022.

Energy firms were also found to be switching smart meters from credit to prepayment mode, thereby effectively forcibly installing PPMs remotely and failing to follow due process by not assessing households for vulnerabilities.

Ofgem has already recognised that this is a breach of licence conditions and wrote to energy firms urging them to stop this practice. But “anecdotal evidence” identified by EFPC members suggests this continues to occur.

It wants the combination of the price cap and energy price guarantee to eliminate the premium that PPM users pay for their energy.

Jan Shortt, general secretary of National Pensioners Convention, said: “Customers have an opportunity to discuss with their energy company the best way to resolve any debt. To override this option is in breach of the protocol for energy companies.

“Customers must be the first to know not the last and must be protected from such unscrupulous energy companies. We have written to Ofgem to urge the Regulator to immediately intervene to ensure this is so.

“Where customers do not see pre-payment as the right option for them, they must immediately be returned to their original smart meter plan.”

Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action said: “Imposition of a pre-payment meter is disconnection by the back door. When you can’t top up the meter everything clicks off, regardless of whether you are old, ill, or have a newborn baby.

“Now smart meters are being used to cut people off supply by imposing pre-payment remotely. We were all encouraged to get smart meters and told they would help us save money. Some people always suspected they would be used for illegal disconnections. They have been proved right.”

Jo Maugham, executive director of the Good Law Project, said: “Utility companies are repeatedly failing their supplier obligations and the customer safeguards that are in place, and are applying to the already overstretched courts for 10,000s of warrants a month to force their way into people’s homes to fit pre-payment meters.

“This puts people at risk of self-disconnecting and the health risks of cold, dark, damp homes. This is unacceptable and we are exploring legal routes to put a stop to it.”

An Ofgem spokesman said: “Protecting consumers is our top priority and we recently wrote to all suppliers to ask them to stop the process of remotely switching customers onto PPMs.

“We have also banned PPM installations entirely for the most vulnerable customers and suppliers’ obligations are clear – our Standards of Conduct contain rules that suppliers must treat all domestic consumers fairly and suppliers must make extra effort to identify and respond to needs of their consumers in vulnerable situations.

“We are firmly on the side of consumers and last week our robust and proactive review found 17 of the largest domestic energy suppliers need to do more to help vulnerable customers this winter and beyond.”

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